Have you ever watched a youth program where everything seemed to be working? As a youth worker, your gut reaction can be a good gauge of when things are "clicking" inside youth programs and when things need improvement. Sometimes with the current pressure to show the outcome and impact of our programs, we lose sight of the skills we develop through experience in youth work - our ability to observe and assess.
Observational methods in evaluation or research are gaining popularity in school and youth settings. In Minnesota 4-H, we have been investing in the Youth Program Quality Assessment. This standardized observational tool allows youth workers to assess safe environments, supportive environments, interaction, and engagement. There are many other tools for assessing youth program quality. Check out The Forum for Youth Investment for a review of tools.
An article in the spring 2011 Afterschool Matters publication takes a look at the Self Assessment of High-Quality Academic Enrichment Practices. Holstead and King detail the growing emphasis of self-assessments inside 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Their article gives a glimpse into aligning self-assessment with standards of program practice and highlights the pros and cons of self-assessment. They note the power of self-assessment for providing information that can build "programs that provide the best possible services to participants."
Pros of self-assessment include: it encourages staff to be reflective, it promotes continual reflection, and it can generate important feedback that staff can use. One of the biggest cons of self-assessment is the risk that in tailoring tools to fit your program, you can lose the reliability and validity of the instrument.
I am a huge proponent of assessing the quality of our learning environments and I strongly believe in observation. Sometimes that means using a standardized tool, like the YPQA, but sometimes it means creating a tool that hones in on what is important in your organization. It can also mean just stopping to watch what is happening inside your program.
So what can observation add to your program?
- Observation prompts program staff to slow down and be reflective
- Observation takes you to the heart of youth programs - the point of service - where adults and youth come together
- Making observation part of your practice helps to build skills in youth workers and encourages a climate of dialogue and improvement
Are you a proponent or practitioner of observation as part of program self-assessment? Why or why not?